John Haber
in New York City

Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle

Tired of the lines at museums? Me, too. I say wait till it comes out on video.

Unfortunately, with Matthew Barney, that puts me right back on line at the Guggenheim. He takes video art to the movies, the kind that plans for its own sequels. I should have known why one calls all those big shows blockbusters. Barney in Cremaster 3 (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2002)

Best picture

Barney makes the Guggenheim into a multiplex, in more ways than one. Whereas Doug Aitken illuminates a museum eight times over, Barney's wide screens descend from the fabled skylight. Like a high-tech ceiling fixture, they update the geometry above while blasting the latest and best of his videos, Cremaster 3. At over three hours, it will still, I promise, be playing by the time one reaches the top floor.

The other four parts of his epic, half a dozen years in the making, lie throughout the rotunda and a side gallery. Down in the lobby, Cremaster 1 even gives one something to do while waiting (on line) for a ticket. Old-master blockbusters were never like this.

Props from Barney's cycle, which he sells as sculpture, all but spill down the ramp, without really bringing the video into the viewer's space as they might for Sue De Beer and her cross between video and installation. So does a trough for one of his favorite ingredients, chilled Vaseline. Tread carefully. While the museum begs visitors not to touch, it keeps a fresh supply on hand regardless.

The museum walls hold more spinoffs for the market—glossy photos, really just film stills. If new media challenge old paradigms of art and commerce, Barney has turned Cremaster into the art-world equivalent of a cottage industry. With the slow release of these videos and their offshoots, he has his marketing strategy down pat. He has been building buzz among insiders for years. While most art fans have had to settle for gossip about videos that few had seen, The New York Times was already calling him the artist of the decade. It gives new meaning to the award for best picture.

Barney suits a museum that has itself become less an exhibition hall than a cross between stage set and global corporation. After wheeling and dealing for branches from Vegas to Venice, the Guggenheim canceled plans for a Frank Gehry building in lower Manhattan. After shows of motorcycles and fashion, it had to postpone Barney's exhibition for a year. Then again, the perils of globalization and the boom somehow suit video art.

They also suit Barney's artiest film studio. Along with a suitably grand European opera house and a football stadium in his Idaho home town, the Guggenheim gets a choice part in the saga. Women tap dance along the ramp in Cremaster 3. Barney, a high-school athlete and then some, hoists himself from floor to floor as if on a climbing wall. In an orange headdress that would shame John Waters, he then joins the cast for a bubble bath in the museum's ground-floor basin. I nominate the Guggenheim for best supporting role.

Film histories

One may not find pricey art on Netflix yet, but the Academy Awards should still take him seriously. In art, video means a new medium, with its own rules or with no rules at all. In real life, video means music and the movies, take home. And Barney's extravaganza poses a real question: do these meanings differ?

Video art has come of age. A deluge of retrospectives and panels have pursued its origins and its future. They have traced it to television and sculpture, split screens and grand opera, performance art and Minimalism, the artist's body and computer simulations, e-commerce, the intersection of art and science, and even painting. They define the medium art not just formally, as a reflection on old media and new technology. Instead, as Michel Foucault would put it in his weave of Nietzsche and structuralism, they give it a genealogy.

Somehow, though, I had never stopped to ask about another ancestor, the movies. Sure, a concurrent show unfolds at the Museum of the Moving Image, known more for screening old movies. Yet even that show, which invites the viewer to manipulate images, firmly pushes the Alt key or mouse button. Sure Jon Routson and Christian Jankowski obsess over the movies, but Hollywood features only as a friendly rival. Barney changes things.

Movies do suggest other histories for video art. Think of cult films, known only to the few. Think of stag films, with a male leer that never stops. Think of quick cuts and long shots that challenge the very idea of looking and storytelling. And now, think of big-budget movies, perhaps too ambitious or too shallow for their own good, but still very personal stories.

The avant-garde, the male gaze, collage and contemplation, and big money—they already sound like a history of Modernism. Barney indulges in all of these. The familiarity of the movies also helps to explain his standing with critics and with the public. The Guggenheim has not drawn a crowd like this in ages. I mean not just its size, but also its youth. Other museums would die to look this relevant.

Barney's genealogy makes him interesting and challenging. It also makes for one of the silliest exhibitions in memory—and the most deadly earnest.

The Hollywood stag film

That five-part extravaganza totals 7½ hours. The assignment of numbers, not in the order of their making, seems to announce an overarching, decade-long plan. One may never know for sure. As one navigates the Guggenheim's ramp, one catches clips out of context, out of sequence, or even simultaneously.

Barney evolved slowly, from Idaho to the Guggenheim and from home video to movie epic. If Cremaster 3, just completed, runs for hours, the four older parts take around an hour each. They may add up to one long, overwhelming fantasy, but they pile on arbitrary moments. Anything can happen at any time, and the same kinds of images and actions recur often.

Like Hollywood movies, they involve large casts, a wide-screen format, preternaturally sharp color, airless skies, costumes, and lavish props. Settings like the Guggenheim or an opera house must require a lot of money—or lots of good will from the arts community. Video never paid at those rates, but Barney has this well under control. Besides the props and photos, he sells limited-edition CDs, with his own design pressed onto the disk. He may also offer suggestive packaging in black leather.

Barney combines adolescent male fantasies with high fashion and a knowing wink. He even coaxes Ursula Andress out of retirement. Women, their hair drawn back, invariably wear lots of make up, invitingly silly smiles, and little else. They form an equally slow procession down a bright-blue football field in Idaho. The camera catches their double line from above, their heels and hoop skirts from below.

Hollywood, too, makes movies like this, but only in a certain genre. Call it "men are perverts." Make that men with sufficiently posh dealers. Barney himself has worked as a model, and anyone who looks equally good in a suit or an orange dress would fit in well behind a gallery desk.

What unites teen lust, pop culture, and artistic pretension? Hollywood may have the last word after all. Like Lord of the Rings, Barney takes video art into a ritual male initiation.

Rites of passage

The ritual begins with watching and waiting. It demands ceremony and physical endurance, as with Chris Burden. It begs for sex and gore. And Barney delivers on them all.

A costumed royal family and its servants welcome the artist—or dragoon him—into its home. A fashionable prewar couple takes to the races. They lean on the rails in anticipation for what seems hours, while the trotters slowly arrive.

The initiation rites extend to blood, endurance, and the making of art. The man from the track mounts a platform to receive a cylinder sent down a wire. After opening the message, he places a white blanket on a horse, now at rest and covered with blood. Elsewhere, images refer to Gary Gilmore. To me, Gilmore recalls only a dimly remembered Saturday Night Live take-off on America's lust for capital punishment. Barney's America lusts for more than blood.

A race car hurtles down the road, as if on its way to a collision with Martin Kippenberger and his rusted chassis. Its driver crawls through a narrow, salt-lined cavern and hoists himself up the Guggenheim's tiers. The salt caves, bristling plastic, and icy petroleum jelly suggest both oozing sexuality and art of the 1960s. Think of Eva Hesse and her opaque substances. Think of Richard Serra not for his Torqued Ellipses but hurling molten lead—and in fact Serra appears in person, hurling Vaseline.

Emulation, encounter, and parody—they pay tribute to a young artist's acceptance. Just as appropriately, video segments and photographs have pretentious titles out of another kind of adolescent fantasy out of Jim Shaw, like "The Order" or "The Five Points of Fellowship." Perhaps only a male preteen would know that a cremaster is a muscle governing the testicles.

Yet while the subject demands a blockbuster crowd, the work itself reflects an art scene open only to initiates. The critics in Barney's fan club know the work well. The rest of us had to wait years for the Guggenheim to put it all on display.

Postmodernism's half-time show

Barney's ambition and genealogy come at just the right time. He also brings together many streams of video's history.

With sources like Hesse and Serra, he bows to Minimalism while creating a maximalism. His athletic feats recall performance as bodily torture in early video art from Marina Abramovic, Abramovic and Ulay, or Bruce Nauman, but in a position of comfort and safety. In giving a museum its own self-representation, he revives the mind games of video artists like Gary Hill, but with the illusion undisguised. Nam June Paik kicked off video art with television sets, and Barney has never turned off the tube.

At the same time, the turn to movies raises an overdue question. Has video anything new to offer? Does video suppress its association with the movies, as an avant-garde gesture? When it comes to art, one had better watch out for the return of the repressed.

Can video really escape old paradigms, old media, and the marketplace? Critics and artists have to grapple with art institutions in an age of big profits. By representing it all as one more film epic, Barney celebrates it, deflates it, and profits from it, too.

Barney may seem the perfect video artist now that Modernism and Postmodernism have grown into institutions of their own. That may seem challenging, comforting, or plain scary. At least since David Salle, art has often affected a mix of soft core, tony people, disjunctions that intentionally fail to add up, and pseudo-profundity. Barney's climb up the Guggenheim could serve as a metaphor for a generation torn between the health club and the museum. It is also a generation torn between art and art-world stardom.

I do not want to turn away entirely from Barney's imagination or his obsessions as unbending as Captain Ahab's, not even after a video on whaling, part of more recent Matthew Barney in the galleries. Still, I confess: I am puzzled why those who skip fashion magazines, Tolkein movies, and football half-time shows should care. Is Postmodernism's half-time over yet?

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"Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle" ran through June 11, 2003, at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. A related review looks at Matthew Barney since 2003, including his drawings at the Morgan Library in 2013.


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